Volume 29, Number 2


Steven Sheffield Cooke

Mathematics is the language of science and technology. For centuries, humans have slowly increased their vocabulary and fluency in this tongue. From the early days, when Greek scholars such as Euclid and Pythagoras sketched their first parallelograms and triangles, to the modern centuries when Newton and Leibniz connected derivatives and integrals, it has been an uphill struggle. Numbers grew complex and imaginary. Advances in modern mathematics crept forward, formula by formula, and equation by equation, with sometimes entire lifetimes spent by mathematicians to develop single definitions or to fine-tune minor variations on old themes. By the last days of the Twentieth Century, it looked like everything that could be discovered or defined, had been. What was needed was a radical new breakthrough or a new type of genius.

Some of the most popular timesaving devices of the time were the android tablets and the cellular Phones. Pewlett Hackard had long set the standard for excellence in adding machines, computer systems and accessories, but they remained most famous for their comprehensive line of pocket calculators and electronic devices. Their innovative designs and reliability made them the first choice of serious professionals everywhere.

To kick off their new product line for the Twenty-First Century, the upper management of Pewlett Hackard wanted something special. They hoped to combine all the advanced features possible into one complete package. This new model was designated as the PH-169-S. It was envisioned as containing not only the standard features that had already proven their success, but entire arrays of extra functions and pre-programmed formulas. At the touch of a single keystroke, users could call up Planck’s constant, the millionth decimal equivalent of Pi, rearrange trigonometric identities or add simple fractions. In addition to the numeric and standard alphabetical icons, the design team decided to add the Greek alphabet as well, with all of its coded mathematical symbolism.

The Pewlett Hackard design staff got excited by this concept and decided to push the idea even further. By the time they finished with the prototype, they added a multi-function wireless interface that allowed the unit to function in tandem with any of the current generation of computer systems, cellular phone links and Internet information bases, including the clouds and e-verses. The fuzzilogical circuitry of the display screen would interact with the eye movements of the user and make touch controls unnecessary for most simple functions. This device would set the pace for microelectronics well into the next century or at least until the revised model was released next week.

Not all of the designers at Pewlett Hackard were fully dedicated to this new project. Senior Controller Isaac Albert was supposed to review the templates before the final program was to be etched into the processor chips. Although he had a spotless record with over a decade of service in the company, Albert should never have been allowed near the project. His personal life was in a shambles. His wife had recently left him for an android lover she had met at her weekly trip to the Rejuve Clinic. This had soured the disposition of Albert to the point that he was shunned by virtually everyone he came in contact with. His dog even growled at him when he went home.

Management at Pewlett Hackard had been putting the screws to the design team for months, hoping to get the PH-169-S launched ahead of schedule. This pressure caused extra strain on already delicate egos. For Albert, it was the last straw. He had more than enough credits already saved to retire early. This was to be his final project before he left the company and went on an extended holiday around the world. Albert knew there was a chance he would be tempted to return, so he devised a plan that would guarantee that he would never be rehired into this rat race again. He spent long hours at his workstation, adding some real zingers into the original designs. Since his department was responsible for the last stamp of approval before any project went into production, he had a virtual free reign inside the office.

As part of his sabotage, Albert cross-connected several key logic circuits. He went about his work in a sneaky way. He knew the calculation algorithms had to pass simple tests, or Quality Control would never allow them to be sold. It was only in the higher-end functions that were not easy to check out, where he put in his most mischievous dirty tricks. He designed special subroutines which printed dirty words in Greek characters instead of the proper answers. Albert bobby-trapped some circuits so completely that some questions would receive no responses at all. Some would start asking the user to answer questions themselves to be able to proceed.

On his final day at work, he shipped the altered plans off to the manufacturing division and finished packing his personal stuff. He was determined to enjoy this vacation. By the time senior management figured out what had gone wrong, it would be far, far too late. The rest is history. Albert had firmly added his own stamp to the ranks of Chaos Theory and propelled mankind into the next generation of mathematics and infinite theory.

Serial # 26051815

The first recorded instance of unusual activity was in a small junior college near Knoxville, Tennessee. A PH-169-S had been purchased for one of the students by a wealthy and well-meaning parent. It was the first day of the fall semester and roll call had just been taken in the advanced Algebra class on the second floor of the Math and Science wing.

Faculty member and instructor Sara Chorusa had just finished outlining a sample problem on the overhead projector. This was her way of breaking the ice with her students. If they used their calculators correctly, they should all get an error message. She had purposefully set up the problem incorrectly so there was a step that forced the students to try to divide by zero. It usually took several minutes for them to give up and start raising their hands. At least one student in every class so far had enough training to spot her challenge for what it was and point out the error in her formula. Most students just sat there, punching buttons, trying and retrying the problem until she called a halt to the exercise. She used this as an example of how the students should always question what was handed out to them and to use more than simple routine to solve their problems.

Sara had just about given up on this group and was going to let them in on her little secret, when a tentative hand crept up in the back of the room. Sara smiled as she walked back to see the answer displayed on the student’s screen. As she walked up to the student, Sara noticed the calculator was one of those fancy new Pewlett Hackard models. She wished she could afford something this modern, but her salary left little room for such luxuries. She leaned over to listen to the student’s explanation. What Sara saw displayed on the screen turned her hair white. Her screams could be heard all the way down on the first floor.

Serial # 20211814

In Grand Forks, North Dakota, civil engineer Cal Renwick was using his new PH-169-S to finalize the blueprints for the bridge he had designed. Although he was a seasoned veteran with plenty of prior work under his belt, Renwick was always innovating new designs into his projects. A craftsman of the old school, he was never happy with just making one more bridge. He wanted to have people viewing his creations feel compelled to stop and take out their cameras. His reputation always kept him in steady demand, even though he was far from the lowest bidder.

This latest bridge was to be no exception, although when it was finally completed, he would gain a whole new reputation. The original name of the bridge is now unknown, but it came to be called the Mobius Miracle Monument once opened. Onlookers from the sides of the ravine it traversed were amazed by the curious illusion that cars and trucks driving upon the bridge appeared to be driving upside down. The bridge took considerably longer than expected to pass the approval of the building inspectors. As often as not, their vehicles ended up returning to the side they had left from. The only sure way across was to make a U-turn somewhere on the bridge and then back up until the exit appeared in front of you. It took the state legislature an additional five years to compose a subsection of the vehicle and building codes to satisfy the new requirements.

Serial # 02150120

Soon after leaving port at Nassau, millionaire playboy Hugh Howard synced the Wi-Fi of his PH-169-S into the Global Positioning console of his pleasure yacht. Howard loved splashing his boat up and down the party zones of the East Coast, only pausing long enough to entertain his friends and associates, before moving onto the next event. The one thing he hated was keeping track of his position on the charts. He was constantly adding new gadgets to the yacht, as soon as they came on the market, if not before. He even managed to utilize some things not available to the public. It helped when several of his frequent guests were part of the Congressional Armed Services Committee. He was on the payroll as a paid consultant and electronics troubleshooter. His yacht was currently testing some ultra-sophisticated top-secret sonar device for the U.S. Navy.

Howard fed the coordinates of St. Thomas Harbor into the keypad of his new calculator and let the autopilot take over. His ship, the Centurion Falcon, rose out of the water on hydrofoils and sped off into the swells of the ocean. Howard settled down with his communications gear and dealt with the business side of his empire.

Several hours later, when he went to check his progress, he found himself approaching an island that modern mariners would not have believed existed. Visible from the harbor were the soaring faces of temples and libraries with ornate statuary and massive Doric columns. Howard docked his ship at the marble wharf and became the first modern human to step onto the newly rediscovered continent of Atlantis.

Serial # 06050120

On a tired-looking back lot of a small movie studio in the outskirts of Hollywood, Stunt Director Fil Darson paced off the distance of the street scene they would be filming later that day. His limp was barely noticeable. As he carefully measured off the distance between the marks, he wrote numbers in a small neat hand in his ever-present notebook. He rubbed his hip, remembering the accident that had taken him out of the driver’s seat and into the director’s chair. He was determined not to have any of his stunt crew make the same mistakes he had. He pulled out his new calculator and went to work with the numbers.

When the cast and crew showed up, he had to have things ready for the cameras. His boss was one to constantly remind him that Time Was Money. As he recorded the data and calculated the physics involved for his stunts, Fil had no way of knowing that the film they would shoot for this little B-movie later in the day would set film history and win him the Special Effects Oscar for the next seven years running.

Serial # 01090419

Deep in the labs of a small medical facility outside Tallapoosa, Georgia, researcher Marby Cuswell rubbed a gloved hand across his forehead. He analyzed a fresh sample of DNA material, looking for the elusive answers that always seemed to be hiding just out of reach. He decided it was time to let the fancy new calculator they had just spent the last of their budget on do some of the work. Cuswell fed the last sequence of DNA into the databanks and keyed in a sub-program to test for jumping expanding genes in the matrix. He knew from experience that this should take a while, so he headed off to the cafeteria for his break.

He downed a crunchy tuna salad sandwich and washed it down with a barely chilled cola. After the break, Cuswell plodded back to his tiny lab space and glance at the display of the calculator to see how much of the program had run. To him, it looked like the screen was displaying the decimal equivalent of a human sneeze. He pounded the table when he thought about how much time his little snack break had cost him. He pushed the reset button without realizing that he had just erased the answer to several of medicine’s most chronic ailments.

Serial # 20091425

Another researcher in Oglesby, Illinois, was rapidly clicking the keys of her PH-169-S. Jean Tamcaster had wandered away from her fellow scientists down in the particle accelerator for a little peace and quiet. She could only listen to so much banter from the “Quick-Quacks and their Quirky Quarks.” There was a limit to how many science jokes she could take at one sitting. It seemed to be an axiom that the higher one’s measured I.Q., the lower the standards of humor became.

Jean was using her calculator for the mundane task of trying to find balance in her checkbook. However, instead of totaling her account, the function switch had been left in the Chaos Algorithm Mode. She hit the Total Button and was surprised to see a series of symbols arranged in a brief equation. After spending several moments wondering how badly she was overdrawn to get this kind of response, her training took over. She looked down at the equation again, and then grabbed a pencil and notepad to record the data. She ran to the intercom and buzzed the lab. “Hey guys, about that Unified Field Theory you were working on…”

Serial # 12011316

Less than two hundred miles away, in a small VCR repair shop in Fort Wayne, Indiana, apprentice electrician Ed Thomason unwrapped the present his boss and shop owner, as well as father, Ed senior, had given him. Ed junior looked down at the shiny new calculator with disbelief. With a huge smile on his face, he thanked his father and asked him how they could afford such an expensive gift.

Ed senior told him to, “Never mind that, try it out!”

Running a series of Maxwell’s equations from memory, Ed junior looked at the results. The resulting answer provided him with the necessary data to work out a feasible way of producing Cold Fusion for pennies an application. Years later, when the Thomason family was busy investing their second billion, Ed junior realized he had never found out why his father had purchased the calculator for him in the first place.

Serial # 03122102

The Math Club of East Beverly High School in Beverly Hills, California, was preparing for its monthly meeting. After the minutes were read, the members eagerly awaited the feature event. Senior Taylor Maclaurin had suggested this latest new contest after he received his new scientific calculator. His idea was for the club members to have a speed calculation contest. He suggested that each student hook up their new PH-169’s in series. In Beverly Hills, if one kid had a hot new thing, they all soon had the same hot new thing, at least until somebody came out with something better. The topic for the contest was voted to be the running of a series of second-order non-homogeneous linear differential equations. The club secretary would monitor each competitor’s progress and compute the winner from his central monitoring station. The contest was fine in theory, but virtually all of the members were of the same caliber. In Beverly Hills, if one kid had a certain amount of extra tutoring, they all soon had the same level of training. The thirty-odd calculators started hammering out the solutions to the equations, in series, and virtually in-step. The surge started a vortex in several dimensions, triggering an earthquake that historians still feel justified in calling “The Big One.”

Serial # 08210705

In a slightly smaller and somewhat less pretentious school in the suburbs of Deming, New Mexico, John Kepler was setting up an experiment for his advanced physics class. He was trying to graphically represent the same model that ancient scientists have used when they misinterpreted the orbits of the planets during the time science had maintained a geocentric view of the universe. Kepler attached his new calculator to a device that enlarged the display and provided an image that could be projected on the wall screen. He was so absorbed in the plotting of the complex revolutions he was graphing that he never saw the huge shape forming in the beam of projected light. News reporters on the eleven-o-clock report would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the Deming Dinosaur.

Serial # 01181325

Pentagon lobbyist Dean Helsey went over the notes in his briefcase. He had plans for a new ultra-light machine pistol he hoped to be able to sell production contracts for. He believed in making the world safe for democracy and free enterprise. He was willing to talk at great lengths about how the troops of the United States armed forces were entitled to the best weaponry that could be obtained for them. The fact that Helsey’s company made a few million dollars in profits from this policy shouldn’t hurt anybody, right? He pulled out his calculator and started to double-check his figures one more time. He pushed the Xmit key and blinked when the screen remained blank. He did not notice that a secretary across the hall had vaporized from her workstation. In frustration, he hit the Xmit key three more times. Three more people in the corridor no longer existed in this dimension.

Serial # 23011816

In a remote listening post set up in the badlands of North Dakota, SETI scientist Eugene Wagner went through his latest batch of data from the radio telescopes under his direction. The miscellaneous odd tidbits of signals floating around the galaxy had to be compared to known phenomena and sorted to look for something with origins not considered normal in Nature. He found one series of signals that caught his eye. He ran the information through his PH-169-S and started to process the results. The machine came up with a series of profanity that would blister the tongue of a Marine Drill Instructor. He dropped the printout and reached for a phone.

Serial # 20180907

In a high school math class in Sheridan, Wyoming, sophomore Al Burbank had borrowed his dad’s calculator to help solve his homework problems. Not only would Al end up with an “A” in this and all future math classes, but he would go on to found a whole new discipline in mathematics called Mischievous Numbers.

Serial # 12151920 et al

A customs inspector in Los Angeles, California misdirected six cases of PH-169-S’s. Their current whereabouts remain unknown to this day.

Serial # 23091316

Physicist Morton Higgsfield was visiting the new particle accelerator near Hobbs, New Mexico. A fellow scientist loaned him a calculator to show him the equations they were working on for comparing Quarks. They had no sooner filled in the data for Top Quarks, then the display flashed “TRUTH=BEAUTY+CHARM/UP*(-DOWN)” and the lights in the entire facility went out. When the rescue crews arrived, they found that the lights had not just gone out, they were missing entirely. Higgsfield’s equation had created so much dark matter that ten square miles of the state were quarantined while the EPA tried to figure out what to do with it.

Serial # 07051405

A pathologist was reviewing the data from an autopsy he had just finished. As he punched the data into his device, he was not able to get a proper summation. He tried it a total of six times without getting any visible results. When he turned around to find a different device to help him with the calculations, he found six perfect clones of the dead guy on six identical gurneys in the morgue of Boston General.

Serial # 06151504

Sixth-grader Nicole Dukas from Grand Rapids Michigan used her mother’s calculator to finish her homework for the day. Nicole did not notice any unusual problems, but she forgot to turn the unit off after she finished. When her mother used the unit to figure out the week’s grocery bill, the refrigerator swallowed itself, and their cow jumped over the moon.

Serial # 13091404

Best-selling writer Carmen Vega tried to figure the expenses of her new novel into her calculator so she could make sure the publisher had deducted enough to cover her tax liability. As she began totaling the deductions, her new calculator started displaying multiple alternate scenarios to complete her recent novel. This continued for hours and then stretched into days. By the time the authorities in Sourlake, Texas arrived to investigate the novelist’s disappearance, they could not agree whether or not their report of the incident was the discovery of a new artificial intelligence or a ghostwriter program that liked trashy novels.

Serial # 06011920

Space Shuttle Pilot Jim Swell was getting ready for an ohms burn to realign the shuttle for a satellite maintenance maneuver. He was waiting for the computer to give him the final “Go” signal when his screen went blank. This was what his extensive training had all been for. He reached for the back-up calculator and used the manual calculation procedures to establish his course correction. This one was going to turn out a little different than expected. When he entered the data for the new coordinates into the NavCom and hit the execute button, he found that he was no longer circling the Earth. In fact, if he was reading the star patterns correctly, he was not even in the Milky Way galaxy any longer.

Serial # 08151205

Mike Mahler in Moberly Missouri was miserable about his missing money. He could not make enough to get himself out of the hole his wife kept digging with their checkbook. For every five dollars he was able to earn, she was able to spend ten. And that was when she wasn’t spending twenty. He pulled out the new PH-169-S calculator she had bought for him. He had to agree it was a nice, fancy machine, but not something he felt he would ever need. He couldn’t even understand what most of the buttons were used for. Mike would have been happy with one of those five-dollar jobs. He still had that free one which came with one of the many magazine subscriptions she had started. He had never bothered to read the magazines, but the calculator had worked fine; at least he could understand it. He gingerly pushed some of the keys on the new electronic toy. He fed in some more numbers. In the center of the screen, a little black spot appeared. At first, he thought it was a misplaced decimal point, until the damn thing started to increase in size. As he fed more and more numbers into the machine, the dot swelled to the point where it could no longer be contained by the screen. Mike stopped punching in numbers, but it was too late. The mini black hole he had created sucked him right in. Before the machine ran out of power, it had consumed half of Moberly and the surrounding county.

Serial # 08151225

A calculator was sent by mail order to Crystal Falls, Michigan. A postal worker trying to follow her daily story on the television set near her desk put it into the wrong Post Office Box by mistake. She wasn’t supposed to have it turned on while she worked, but nobody had complained so far. When the clerk from the Daily Disciples of Christ Church picked up their mail, they assumed it was another donation from a loyal supporter. The clerk used the new calculator to compile the weekly donations the church had received. As the clerk tried to view the total, the calculator demanded more and more income. Eventually, the calculator accepted its new position on the altar and the loving support of its new congregation.

Serial # 07151405

One of the new units was kept behind at the Pewlett Hackard factory. It was placed in the reception area for sales reps to play with and hopefully generate new orders. Polly McMillan stopped by to see if her husband was ready to go out for lunch. Their three-year-old son, Billy, found the sample model on the table. He started to play with it while his mommy was having the receptionist call back to daddy’s desk. Nobody was able to determine which buttons little Billy punched, but the factory and the surrounding town disappeared, leaving an empty lot behind.